Director: Eric Juhola
Cast: Coy Mathis, Kathryn Mathis, Jeremy Mathis, Michael Silverman
Watch Growing Up Coy online in the UK: Netflix UK
“To me, this is a story about two parents who love their children.” That’s Michael Silverman, of the Transgender Legal Defence and Education Fund, introducing Growing Up Coy. It’s a telling line, because it gives you an idea of what kind of film this is. Warm, compassionate and inspiring, it’s a documentary that gives real insight into the people behind the news that circled the world in 2013, when the family of Coy Mathis took a Colorado school authority to court for stopping her from using the girls’ bathroom at school. Why? Because Coy was born a boy.
Long before she turned six in 2013, we learn, Coy identified as a girl, feeling more comfortable in pink clothes. Her parents ultimately accepted her for who she was. So when her school turned around and said she could only use the boys’ loos, they argued it was a breach of the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act.
This is when Michael enters the picture. Director Eric Juhola joins him, beginning to film six weeks before 20-something Kathryn and 30-something Jeremy go public with their transgender daughter’s story. The intimate access that Juhola has makes for touching, honest viewing, as we see the uncertainty, the struggles and the attention that both Coy and the parents get. It immediately seems clear that the world is not very responsive or understanding, as newspapers and TV pundits accuse the Mathises of abusing their child, not just in terms of her gender identity – surely, they argue, she is too young to know who, or what, she is – but in terms of using her to get publicity.
“I’m sure there are going to be people who look at the Mathises and ask questions,” admits Michael at the start. It’s a shame, then, that Growing Up Coy doesn’t really explore those questions: when queries and accusations do come up, they are framed as hate-fuelled backlash and the only reactions to what, at the time, was a relatively rare scenario – the legal ruling in Coy’s case is a landmark moment in transgender rights history – with any more rational middle-ground largely unseen.
There is, it must be said, never any sign that the parents are motivated by anything other than devotion to their daughter, and we can see plainly that they care for Coy – even to the point where their legal fight takes a serious toll on their marriage. And, as the case draws to a close, they try to avoid exposing Coy to the media more than necessary. But the movie’s candid access is undermined slightly by Juhola’s evident decision to present only their side of what remains, three years later, a divisive debate. Even the title, Growing Up Coy, teases us with the idea of a documentary charting the growth of a young transgender girl in this international spotlight. This, however, is less a story about Coy and more a story about two parents. And there’s little attempt to create a documentary about them that can play to the side of the discussion that arguably needs to see this most. The presentation is so simple and straight-forward, meanwhile, that you wish there were a bit more flair to go with the feelings.
The result isn’t entirely balanced, or original in its form, but the subject of the documentary remains powerful, as we see the real impact this battle has upon the whole family (including Coy’s siblings) and their relationships. Growing Up Coy humanises the headlines in a way that is not only important – more than half of states still lack protections for trans students, the end titles reveal – but also moving. The presentation may not be unbiased, but the emotional price of discrimination is undeniable. And that’s something everyone needs reminding of.
Growing Up Coy is available on Netflix UK, as part of a £7.49 monthly subscription.